Do You Snore? How Sleep Apnea Can Hurt Your Heart
If you have sleep apnea, you need to be concerned about the ill effects it can have on your heart.
If you suffer from untreated sleep apnea, a momentary stop of breathing occurring repeatedly while you sleep, you could be causing serious damage to your heart.
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Importantly, sleep apnea occurs in about 50 percent of people with heart failure or atrial fibrillation, the latter the most common sustained abnormal heart rhythm.
“There is a very strong association between sleep apnea and cardiac arrhythmia. Research also shows episodes of upper airway collapse in sleep apnea may trigger arrhythmia events,” says Reena Mehra, MD, Director of Sleep Disorders Research in the Sleep Center of the Neurologic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.
Other ways that sleep apnea can increase risk of arrhythmias and heart failure include:
When you stop breathing, your heart rate also tends to drop the longer your body is deprived of oxygen. Then, your involuntary reflexes cause you to startle awake at the end of that period of not breathing. When this occurs, your heart rate tends to accelerate quickly and your blood pressure rises.
These are changes that take place acutely when you stop breathing. However, your body starts to experience chronic effects if you experience frequent sleep apnea. Data suggests increased risk, particularly when you stop breathing roughly 30 times or more per hour. Dr. Van Wagoner says there is likely a risk at even lower frequency rates.
For example, your blood pressure tends to go up, your heart walls thicken due to increased workload and the structure of your heart changes. It tends to become stiffer and less flexible because there are more fibrous cells growing in between the muscle cells.
“All of those things increase the risk that you can have either atrial or ventricular arrhythmias,” Dr. Van Wagoner says. “They also tend to reduce the function of the heart so that it’s less efficient at pumping blood.”
Sleep apnea can be categorized into two types:
Most often, it’s your spouse who will notice that you are snoring heavily and having periods where you stop breathing or wake up abruptly with shortness of breath. Here are some additional symptoms Dr. Mehra says you might notice if you have sleep apnea:
Some ways to control sleep apnea include:
“It is important to note that typical obstructive sleep apnea symptoms such as daytime sleepiness are sometimes absent in heart failure. Also, symptoms of central sleep apnea are oftentimes more difficult to detect,” Dr. Mehra says.
With the high prevalence of sleep apnea in cardiac arrhythmias and heart failure (essentially a coin flip as to whether the patient has it), experts recommend that you don’t delay in seeking the advice of your physician.